Every year I try (and mostly fail) to catch every film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and I will continue that tradition this year. But I also want someone to root for in the Performing categories as well. But here's the thing. I don't have the patience to sit through quite that many Oscarbait movies, so I've decided to Brennan up the joint and run a new experiment: I will watch a horror film starring each of the Best Acting nominees to honor the performances they gave long before they made the A-list.
Let's conclude this project with mini-reviews covering the female performers being honored at this year's ceremony.
Skeletons in the Closet: Best Actress Nominees
Nominated for: Elle
Paul Verhoeven is back, baby! Isabelle Huppert is garnering awards nomination for playing the title character Elle, a woman who seeks to get back at her rapists.
Skeleton in the Closet: ...Elle?
Yeah, the closest Huppert has ever come to starring in a horror movie is Elle itself, so we're gonna give her a pass on this one. Darn foreign actresses swooping in with their prestige picture histories!
Nominated for: Loving
Ruth Negga is a shiny new face in the awards crowd, but the Irish actress has been working since the mid-2000's. Before she played the role of Mildred Loving, one half of a couple that challenged the country's notion of interracial marriage, she appeared in an early direct-to-DVD film from I Am Not a Serial Killer's Billy O'Brien that challenged almost nothing about the horror genre.
Skeleton in the Closet: Isolation (2006)
Director: Billy O'Brien
Cast: Essie Davis, Sean Harris, Marcel Iures
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Five people find themselves trapped on a secluded Irish farm with a genetic experiment gone wrong.
I was excited to check out Isolation. It’s a film from a year and a country I don’t often visit in my horror travels (2005 and Ireland). Plus, in addition to starring Ruth Negga in an oddly major role considering she’s billed fifth in a cast of six, it features an early appearance by The Babadook’s Essie Davis. With that knowledge, I was down to clown with Isolation until what to my wandering eyes did appear but the director’s name, Billy O’Brien. That might not mean anything to you, but to me it meant that I would shortly be sitting through a film by the man who just last year perpetrated I Am Not a Serial Killer, a widely praised film that rubbed me the wrong way so hard it flayed the skin from my bones.
I’m pleased to report that Isolation is much more entertaining than I Am Not a Serial Killer, though it suffers many of the same problems. It’s an exciting concept with a clear driving conflict that is instantly muddied with an excess of inscrutable detail and a mega-grim atmosphere. Instead of being a full-tilt creature feature with crazy mutant cows, Isolation asks you to take out your pencil and notepad and memorize three different stages of mutagenic development, a multitude of inconsistent behavior patterns, and the late addition of a viral aspect that actively argues against the parasitic ideas that were being developed the whole time.
In short, it’s overcomplicated but it also makes no damn sense. Also, I’m guessing they didn’t hire a geneticist to consult on this script, because almost none of this is medically possible, even in this quasi-real world that asks for your suspension of disbelief. Why can’t these people just be fighting a gross thing with sharp teeth? It’s a direct-to-video horror movie, not a TED Talk.
I will give Isolation this though: It’s hella gross. As an effects spectacle, it stretches its budget to the limit to create some truly vomitacular creepy crawly moments. That’s by far the best thing the film has to offer other than its cast, which is packed with future names all avoiding embarrassing themselves. Ruth Negga is asked to portray a profoundly boring character who exists solely to set up a predictable twist and whose backstory only gets more confusing the more she explains it, but she manages to keep a handle on those twitchy, disparate impulses in the script. I wouldn’t watch Isolation again, but I’m not physically angry about sitting through it, which is certainly a step up.
Nominated for: Jackie
Natalie Portman's triumphant return to the Academy Awards sees her bringing to life one of American history's most tragic and iconic figures: Jackie Kennedy. But before that, she already won herself an Oscar for Best Actress in one of Oscar's most horrifying entries in recent memory...
Skeleton in the Closet: Black Swan (2010)
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
A ballerina obsessed with perfection gets the lead role in Swan Lake, which leads her on a journey of sexual discovery and psychotic splintering.
Black Swan is a film that’s overloaded with ideas, some of which are crowded out by bigger, brassier ones clawing for attention. It’s a head-trip arthouse picture whose every fevered thought spills out onto the frame like a Jackson Pollock canvas. It’s a sublimely messy, unrealistic, on-the-nose exploration of its themes, and at times it might seem so simplistic it’s almost juvenile (the black and white outfits representing corruption of purity would be obvious if this was the first film you’d ever seen). But boy if it doesn’t stick in your memory like a shard of glass.
A shabby little shocker masquerading as an art film, Black Swan possess some of the most chilling, intimate body horror this side of David Cronenberg. I’ve always said that the smaller a gore scene is, the more impactful it tends to be, because it’s easier to relate to a paper cut than a decapitation. Black Swan is a series of paper cuts, taking tiny powerful jabs at your sense of security with infinitely memorable horror sequences, including one involving a hangnail that I’ve thought about nearly weekly ever since I first saw this film back in 2011.
These moments are sheer perfection, and they’re worth every second of Vincent Cassel’s obnoxious, incessant repetition of the theme in rapturously clunky dialogue. Black Swan is a deeply unsettling motion picture that rocks you out of your seat with kinetic camerawork, boldly uncanny imagery, and Natalie Portman’s whiplash-inducing performance. Much like her character Nina Sayers, she’s better at portraying the pure, weak, almost voiceless side of her personality, but she grounds the performance enough that the darker, violent side rises organically form it.
Black Swan isn’t a perfect movie, but it never lets itself be anything other than unadulterated pop lunacy. It’s a beautifully crafted ode to a broken mind, and while its narrative is occasionally just as broken, it’s nevertheless a captivating, exhilarating experience.
Nominated for: La La Land
Emma Stone is another youthful face in this year's Best Actress slate, but she had a fairly long period of B-level fame before hitting the big time with the likes of Easy A and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Before she played Mia, a Hollywood actress with big dreams, she had big dreams of herself that led her to a horror-comedy with a mighty silly name...
Skeleton in the Closet: Zombieland (2009)
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
A nerdy outcast attempts to navigate a zombie apocalypse, following a list of survival rules he has come up with.
Zombieland is the American Shaun of the Dead. That’s an easy comparison, but it’s true. It’s a hyper-stylized romantic comedy zombie romp with a little less wry British humor and a lot more bombastic American personality. This is not a bad thing. There’s room in my heart for both films, and the way they’re presented is so fundamentally different that they almost feel like they’re in entirely separate genres despite their similarity on paper.
Zombieland is a sarcastic, geeky, Americana-fueled road trip comedy with explosive gore, big laughs, and an inimitable stylization. It’s always funny, mostly sweet, and occasionally flat-out terrifying. That’s a lot to heap on one film, so let’s break it down a bit.
The defining structure of Zombieland is the list of rules curated by Jesse Eisenberg’s character Columbus, both as a recurring visual gag and as a reflection of his arc as he transitions from a closed-off neurotic to a true blue hero. It takes the genre-skewering centerpiece of Scream and runs with it, having the rules appear in big block letters on the screen, often interacting directly with the events of the film. It’s a fun, organic visual gimmick that knows exactly how long it can go without getting stale.
If that were the only funny, clever element in the entire film, Zombieland would still be a triumph. Fortunately, it’s not. It’s an expertly cast film that uses its sharp script (by Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) as just a jumping-off point for the creation of four unique characters who are more or less the sole focus of the film, which in spite of its elaborate setpieces is a remarkably small-scale character piece.
Jesse Eisenberg is a great snippy, nervous anchor for the film (before that was pretty much all he was ever asked to play), Woody Harrelson is an effortless redneck badass caricature who never loses his humanity, and Abigail Breslin gives one of those haunting child performances where the terrors they’ve lived through are reflected in aged eyes beaming from a fresh face. But I suppose we’re here to talk about Emma Stone, who also gives a terrific performance. So terrific, in fact, that you almost don’t notice how flatly the character is written. She is only ever meant to be a romantic foil for Eisenberg, and the very real, very human pain she shares with her sister is almost entirely due to her performance, which builds out an entire life from a tissue paper characterization.
In fact, the film’s frequently icky treatment of its female lead is essentially the only reason it doesn’t get top marks. I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and say that the movie is narrated by Columbus, and thus is necessarily colored by his perceptions of the world and his weird attitudes toward women. But her arc is still a little too sweaty geek fantasy-y to be entirely comfortable. However, beyond that, Zombieland is an excellent comic thrill ride, and a tiny miracle of Hollywood filmmaking that a story this intimate and kooky made it to the big screen.
Nominated for: Florence Foster Jenkins
If Meryl Streep isn't in this category, Oscar voters are drowned in molten gold. But I'm especially excited to see her this time around, because before she played notably atrocious real-life singer Florence Foster Jenkins, she showed off another side of aging stardom...
Skeleton in the Closet: Death Becomes Her (1992)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Two feuding debutantes take a potion that gives them eternal youth, so their plots to murder each other go hilariously awry.
Death Becomes Her, over the course of its twenty-minutes-too-long run time, is about fifteen different movies. Not all of them are great, especially the bizarre action-thriller feint it makes during the closing act. But it takes such joy in its own construction, it’s hard to look away from even in its rougher patches.
How a dark comedy this high concept ever came to be I’ll never know, but I respect the dickens out of the team that committed themselves to making it a reality. As a slapstick effects spectacle, it hasn’t aged especially well, but this nevertheless contributes to its cartoonishly hyperbolic tone, and that tone is well served by director Robert Zemeckis’ almost absurd attention to detail.
One scene in particular stood out to me on this viewing: Goldie Hawn explaining to Bruce Willis her plan to assassinate his shrewish wife, played by Meryl Streep. This plan is visualized in a series of playful cutaways that blend the present and the future, showing Hawn voicing her explanation as she performs those actions onscreen, eventually culminating in a roaring flame reflected in his glasses, as their violent urges reach a crescendo. This is a man who truly knows what he’s doing when creating a heightened cinematic reality
And boy is it fun to play in that reality. Death Becomes Her really is quite hilarious when it wants to be, even when it’s shooting for obvious Hollywood satire. The cast is pitch perfect, including – perhaps especially – Bruce Willis as the nebbish Ernest Menville, maybe the best role of his entire career (and certainly his best comic role). Hawn and Streep have a wicked, mercurial chemistry that allows you to feel their relationship even as it’s not particularly fleshed out by the script. It’s always nice when Streep steps out of the prestige drama wheelhouse so we can bask in her considerable comic chops.
Yes, Death Becomes Her has a flabby mess of a plot, but during those sequences of darling slapstick that oh so frequently nudge into full-tilt body horror, it’s like the movie has gulped down its own youth potion, and every blemish is blasted away for a few moments of pure, glamorous perfection.
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